Has the ‘Left’ abandoned anti-racism in Israel?

Ethiopian - Israel protest in Tel Aviv (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Ethiopian - Israel protest in Tel Aviv
On May Day in San Francisco the International Longshore and Warehouse Union called on its members to mobilize against police racism: “Turn May Day 2015 into a clarion call for working-class action against racist police terror.” In Israel by contrast the May Day events in Tel Aviv on Friday, May 1, showed staid old Stalinist-style posters with images of big hulking white “workers” on them. It was a sea of white faces at Rabin square.
Yet the day before more than 1,000 Ethiopian Jews had converged on Jerusalem, shutting down parts of the city in one of the country’s largest anti-racism and anti-police brutality protests ever. The total absence of anyone from Israel’s mainstream Left at the event last Thursday highlights a tragic aspect of Israeli society. When it comes to fighting against racism, Israelis with black skin are not on the map. Those who talk “social justice,” “tikkun olam” or those who talk about racism, when they had a chance to come out in force stayed home and remained silent. In so doing they reminded us that Israel’s “Left” is sometimes a Left in name only, it doesn’t fight enough for causes that are normally important to the Left in the West; it abandons essential values about a shared, pluralist and diverse society. It is out of step with a tradition of Jewish activism on behalf of minorities in other countries. 
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THE LARGE anti-racism rally last week was precipitated by a video that emerged on April 27 showing two police officers in an unprovoked attack on an IDF soldier. The video sparked outrage initially in a society that tends to see soldiers as sons of everyone due to the high rate of army conscription for most Israelis.
When it emerged that it was an Ethiopian soldier the conversation shifted from discussions of out-of-control policemen beating an innocent soldier, to questions about racism.
Many Ethiopians in Israel have complained in recent years of increased police violence against Ethiopian youth. Protesters last week discussed the case of another Ethiopian youth, named Yosef Salamsa, who took his own life after alleging police brutality, and harassment of his family. A march by supporters in January only drew a small crowd. This video was therefore a last straw for many people in the community. Community elders also showed support, but the real wellspring of activism came from Ethiopian Jews in their 20s and 30s. These are veterans of an IDF service that was often difficult and underpaid (conscript soldiers received only $150 a month). Some of them were former policemen during their service. One of the cries was “why is our blood equal enough to be shed in Gaza but not back home?” There is a lot of quiet sympathy for Ethiopians in Israel.
Many passerby at the protest last week agreed Israeli society is racist, which is in line with the May survey last year showing 79 percent of Israelis think Ethiopians suffer racism. Leading police officers showed sympathy and condemned the beating. President Reuven Rivlin expressed shock. But there is still a disconnect. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the beating, he referred to “Ethiopian immigrants,” But the protesters were not immigrants, they were mostly born in Israel.
When former Yesh Atid MK Pnina Tamano-Shata spoke to the protesters she asked where the Israeli Knesset members were. That is a perfect symbol of the massive and collective shrug of the shoulders that greeted this anti-racism protest. Not one Knesset member could take time to come. No one from the supposed Left, from Meretz, Hadash, or Labor, that talks about racism, attended (although some issued statements afterward and several attended the anti-racism protest in Tel Aviv yesterday). Where were the young Labor MKs who wow American audiences with their “youthful” energy and talk of “social justice”? To his credit Joint List leader Ayman Odeh wrote a long post in Arabic and Hebrew noting, “I could imagine what it felt like to the Ethiopian youths protesting, when the police began to beat and tear gas [them].”
More shocking was the almost total absence of non-Ethiopian faces from the Jerusalem protest and the lack of a large number from the Tel Aviv protest. Here were more than 1,000 Israelis coming out to say no to racism, and all the NGOs, and all the groups that talk about racism were missing in Jerusalem. If the beating had been meted out by police to a kibbutz member in uniform, a member of Women of the Wall, a Reform rabbinical student, an African asylum-seeker, wouldn’t we have seen numerous groups on the Left angry over it. But because he was an Ethiopian Jewish soldier he matters less? It is a reminder that on February 24, 2015, Haaretz had a headline about the “lesbian rabbi about to lead a crusade against racism in Israel.” The article noted that the “advocacy arm for progressive Judaism in Israel, the Israel Religious Action Center...plans to reorganize its priorities...with special focus on a cause not typically associated with religion: racism.” But the article reveals that the real activism against racism will be devoted “primarily [to] racism against Arabs.” And that, in a nutshell is what “anti-racism” means in Israel to many of those who claim to fight racism.
When it comes to racism, then, the beating of someone by the police is subjected to a racial litmus test. If he is black, the question is: is he a Jewish black person, an African asylum seeker or a Palestinian (yes, there are black Palestinians)? For instance a crowd of mostly white faces protested in the hundreds in Tel Aviv on May 2 against deporting asylum seekers. Why couldn’t any of them come to show solidarity with racism at the Jerusalem protest? Thus the Ethiopian man beaten in Holon loses out on solidarity because he was serving in the IDF and because he was Jewish. His “crime” for some in Israeli society who view his beating with a shrug was actually to be Jewish and in the Israeli army.
Not only is Israeli society riven with racism, but at the heart of the anti-racism elite is a racist mentality. That mentality manifests itself when we talk about discrimination.
When NGOs or groups talk about “racism in Israeli society,” the question is not about the over-arching layers of racism, but about finding one or two groups and focusing efforts on them, rather than trying to make all of society less racist.
Successful diversity and multi-culturalism campaigns have shown that focusing on the rainbow of diversity and making society inclusive creates a norm of anti-racism, rather than prioritizing one group over another. At the anti-racism protest last week, an elderly Moroccan man spoke with some of the youthful activists. “They did the same thing to Moroccans and Yemenites,” he recalled.
He wasn’t the only one to reference the bad old days of the 1950s when police used to wield the truncheons in Wadi Salib against immigrants from Arab countries. The widespread racism against Mizrahi Jews still haunts Israeli society. We were reminded of it last week when it was revealed prime minister David Ben-Gurion once held a discussion (in 1962) about segregating Jews from Europe and Jews from Muslim countries in school. “They will descend to the level of Arab children,” he worried.
Ayman Odeh is correct: racism is a problem for all. The Ethiopian protesters who shouted “today it was him [beaten]; tomorrow it will be you,” are correct, police brutality affects everyone.
RACISM HAS this multi-tiered level in Israel. There are bigoted views against Russian immigrants, said to have “crime in their blood” in one infamous newspaper column in December 2013. In another op-ed at Haaretz a columnist referred to a black security guard as “his black color looked very shabby, tattered and stained with evil.” Mizrahi Jews were recently called “Neanderthals” in the media and a professor said it would have been better if they were “left to rot” in Morocco. A former Israeli education minister called Mizrahi Jews “barbarous tribal forces” in 1983. When those setting education policy talk that way, is it any wonder there is racism? Arab citizens and Palestinians get the brunt of the racism, of course. When Lucy Aharish was selected to light a torch on Independence Day she was subjected to abuse. One writer said she didn’t “dress like an Arab,” and a comedy show mocked her Arabic. It is a reminder that most of Israeli comedic humor in mass media plays on racial stereotypes.
But when we look at the vast problem, what confronts us is that fact that society cannot come to terms with this issue, because even on a simple thing like supporting Ethiopians who came to Jerusalem to say “enough,” there was virtually no interest in the rest of society to support them. Ethiopian protesters, who had blocked major roads throughout the capital city, who had spent one and a half hours with the Jerusalem mayor who spoke with them in the streets, were ignored by the left-leaning press.
It isn’t enough, the tragic statistics that show 30 percent of incarcerated youth are Ethiopian, despite only being two percent of society, or that 40% of Ethiopian men are sentenced to prison during IDF service. When they do speak up they are abandoned. From every angle, whether it is Zionism, or anti-racism or multi-culturalism, this issue should receive more support.
Follow the writer @Sfrantzman.